Earl Silverman was a man who spent 20 years of his life trying to help men and boys who have been abused. On Friday he was found hanging in the garage of his home in Calgary, where his men's clinic was shut down and where a suicide note appears to blame the Canadian government for not paying enough attention to male victims of domestic violence. And in the days since, the myths (that men are abused as often as men) and realities (that men are abuse victims) have returned around the so-called Men's Rights Movement, or MRM, leaving advocates on both sides as conflicted as the man who apparently took his own life fighting for a controversial cause. We've attempted to sort them out:
What is the MRM?
That depends on who you ask. Men's rights advocates, on the most basic level, claim they are combating discrimination and injustices toward men. Which sounds like a reactionary version of feminism for men, but this isn't all men's lib: MRM advocates focus on family law, military service, and domestic violence, insisting that men often get treated unfairly in these spheres of society. Clearly, their positions do not always go over well.
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Sounds like men's rights advocates aren't the worst people on Earth. What's the controversy?
Well, theory and execution are different things. As the Southern Poverty Law Center reported last year, the MRM's most visible advocates often engage in perpetuating misogynistic myths. The SPLC wrote:
Some suggest that women attack men, even sexually, just as much as men attack women. Others claim that vast numbers of reported rapes of women, as much as half or even more, are fabrications designed to destroy men they don’t like or to gain the upper hand in contested custody cases
And the SPLC has data debunking the myth that women attack men as much as men attack women:
A major 2010 study by the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control thoroughly debunks such claims. Nearly one in five American women (18.3%), the study found, have been raped; the comparable number for men is one in 71 (1.4%). Not only that, but more than half (51.1%) of female victims reported that their rapist was an intimate partner — a current or former spouse or boyfriend, or a date.
The movement has struggled to find allies with tenets that don't hold up to the facts. Indeed, the abuse comparisons — that men were as likely to be abused as women — have been thought to undermine the potential good the movement could do for actual male victims of abuse. "Men's Rights Activists are rage-filled misogynists who claim feminists intentionally 'cover up' issues like male rape and workplace injury rates so women can achieve global domination," wrote Jezebel's Katie J.M. Baker in describing members of the movement.
So was Earl Silverman the good kind of advocate or the not-so-good kind?
Well, Silverman is known for having founded Canada's first shelter established for male victims of domestic abuse, out of his own pocket, because he couldn't find support services for himself. Silverman claims his wife abused him, and that's the reason he left her some 20 years ago. "There were a lot for women, and the only programs for men were for anger management," Silverman told Canada's National Post shortly before his death. "As a victim, I was re-victimized by having these services telling me that I wasn't a victim, but I was a perpetrator."
Silverman's shelter, the Men's Alternative Safe House in Calgary, was not funded by the government, and he failed to raise enough money from private donations to keep it open. MASH, as it was known, closed down last month. "The day after he packed up his recently sold home — also the site of the Men’s Alternative Safe House — Earl Silverman was found hanging in his garage," reports the National Post.
This man killed himself because a men's abuse shelter shut down?
Well, according to Silverman's reported suicide note, that could have been a factor. "In a four-page suicide note, Silverman blamed the government for failing to recognize male victims of domestic abuse and for not providing enough services to help those in need," Huffington Post Canada reports.
Well, isn't that a shame?
Some people are conflicted, but nobody should forget this man's legacy — if only to bring some level of awareness to some other side, however unequal the two sides really are. "There are male victims. Whether we're talking about violence or sexual abuse, we need to understand that, and to treat men who have been the victims of abuse with respect and compassion," Salon's Mary Elizabeth Williams writes. She adds: "Yet where Silverman came up short was in perpetuating the Men's Rights movement's fiction that there's any gender equity as far as violence and victims."
Is there still a backlash?
Well, MRM advocates and activists are upset with the news. There's little doubt that Silverman had good intentions, but a truly disconcerting part of all this comes from followers of his movement who are now taking the opportunity to slam feminism. Here's a screenshot from one the posts addressing Silverman's death on the Men's Rights forum at Reddit:
And here's a comment on A Voice For Men, a blog dedicated to the MRM, which sort of turns on feminism, and turned gender equality into a perpetrator.
Surely, this was a man going through financial hardship, who struggled to keep his passion project afloat, who took his own life. But nobody has to believe that feminism can kill, or facts that aren't true.